N.B. health officials tracking cluster of patients with unknown brain disease

·3 min read

FREDERICTON — New Brunswick health officials are alerting the province’s doctors, nurses and pharmacists about a growing cluster of people with a neurological syndrome of unknown origin.

Symptoms of the condition are similar to those of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare degenerative brain disorder, chief medical officer of health Dr. Jennifer Russell told reporters Thursday.

There are 43 cases under investigation in the province, with 35 confirmed and eight suspected cases, Russell said.

"It most likely is a new disease. We haven't seen this anywhere else," she said. The condition has largely been detected by doctors in the Moncton region and the northeastern part of the province, she said.

"We have a lot of work ahead of us in terms of trying to determine the cause, so it's too early really to say very much more," Russell said.

News of the unknown syndrome first emerged through a March 5 memo from deputy chief medical officer of health Dr. Cristin Muecke to the province's various medical professional associations. The note asks anyone who suspects they may have come across a patient with the illness to refer them to a specialized clinic.

"We are collaborating with different national groups and experts; however, no clear cause has been identified at this time," Muecke said in the memo.

According to the memo, the first known case dates to 2015 but was identified later. Eleven more were found in 2019, 24 were detected in 2020 and four more had been identified in 2021 at the time the memo was written. A Health Department spokesperson said three more cases have since been flagged for investigation.

Five people with the unknown syndrome have died, the memo said. Symptoms include rapidly progressing dementia, muscle spasms, atrophy and a host of other complications.

An equal number of men and women have been afflicted with the illness, and the median age of the patients is 59 years old, though the average female patient is 54 and the average male patient is 62, Muecke said in the memo. By contrast, dementia is most prevalent in people over 65, according to Statistics Canada.

"The unfortunate part is that it is affecting some younger people, so it is something that we're looking into right now and collecting as much information as we can," Russell said Thursday.

When asked why the memo was sent March 5 given that cases have been developing over several years, Russell said the situation has been evolving. "We've been working with our local physicians and public health, and at the national level," she said. "So once they decided it did meet the criteria for a cluster and that we should be looking further into it, that's when we started that process."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 18, 2021.

— By Sarah Smellie in St. John's with a file from Danielle Edwards

The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said 14 cases of the disease were detected in 2020.